Bronze Age comb reveals ancient frustration with lice
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A seven-word inscription accidentally found on a 3,700-year-old lice comb is the oldest written sentence in the alphabet, according to new research.
The script on the ivory comb is Canaanite, the earliest alphabet and the source of Latin, which is used today to write English and many other European languages. These words are a humble request that parents of young children today probably share. “Let this fang root out the lice in the hair and beard.”
Small groups of Canaanite letters have been found on pottery shards and arrowheads, however; This is the first time scientists have found a complete sentence written in what Joseph Garfinkel, a professor of archeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says is the first alphabet-based language, making it an important discovery in Armenia. the history of man’s ability to write.
“Such a thing has not been found before. It’s not the royal inscription of a king… it’s a very human thing. You immediately connect with this person who had this comb,” samed Garfinkel, co-author of the study published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology.
The earliest writing system originated about 5000 years ago and was used by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia (c. what is Iraq now). Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, the system, known in its later stages as cuneiform, relied on hundreds of pictographs to represent words, ideas, and sounds. Garfinkel said the Canaanites were the first to use letters that represented sounds in their writing system, which later evolved into the Phoenician, Greek, and eventually the Latin alphabet most commonly used today.
“The Canaanites invented the alphabet. … Every person in the world today can read and write using the alphabetic system. This is truly one of the most important intellectual achievements of mankind,” he said. “When you write in English, you’re really using Canaanite.”
The comb was discovered in 2016 at an Israeli archaeological site called Lachish, a Canaanite city-state dating back to 1000 BC. in the second millennium. However, it wasn’t until 2021, when Madeleine Mumcuoglu, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, first noticed the carving when she zoomed in on an iPhone photo of the comb after completing an examination of the remains of lice found on the artifact.
“I just took a picture with my iPhone. And it wasn’t good enough. So I put it in very bright light and took another photo,” he said.
Mumjuoglu was surprised to see the shallow letters on the small comb. After careful study, the research team found 17 letters that make up the seven words.
The researchers were unable to directly date the comb, despite two attempts at radiocarbon dating, nor were they able to extract DNA from the lice embedded in the comb. The research team believes it dates back to about B.C. 1700, based on comparison with letters written on pottery or ceramics of known age.
Christopher Rolston, professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literature at George Washington University, said there was room for debate as to the exact date of the comb, but agreed that the inscription dates to 1000 BC. in the first half of the second millennium and said that the work. It was “brilliant” by the team to decipher the writing. He was not involved in the study.
“The fact that this writing is about ordinary life is especially interesting. “Lice have been a constant problem throughout human history,” he said via email. “We can only hope that this inscribed comb has been useful in doing what it says it is supposed to do, rooting out some of these pesky insects.”
The comb is similar in design to today’s lice combs, which are made of plastic or metal. On one side there are 14 thin teeth that remove the lice and their eggs, and on the other side there are six more widely spaced teeth used to loosen knotted hair. Head lice have been bothering people for a long time. The earliest direct evidence is a 10,000-year-old intact louse egg in the hair of a Brazilian mummybut DNA analysis has shown that we have been coexisting with head lice for much longer.
The inscription and the fact that the comb was made of ivory suggested to Mumcuoglu that it might have been a gift for someone important. “From my point of view, it was an elite product.”
He was also puzzled by its small size – it measures 3.5 centimeters by 2.5 centimeters (1.4 inches by 1 inch).
“Maybe you kept it in your pocket and used it sparingly. Maybe back then people were also ashamed of having head lice.”
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